Dec 20, 2013 0 Share

A Bittersweet Christmas


Lit candle and holly against black background.
Thinkstock

While holiday stress is a common phenomenon among many people, the closest we typically get to that around our house is the anticipation of Christmas Eve. It is a night we all look forward to each year. But the suspense we feel is honestly a building of sentiment and fondness brought on by memories of many of Christmases past. However, this year has been very different due to a round of rather somber events.

Cody’s great-grandmother—who he calls Grammy—is now in her early 90s and her health is deteriorating quite quickly. Due to hospitalizations, doctor appointments and her fragile state, Cody hasn’t been able to visit her for quite some time. We thought it was important to take him see her at the first opportunity. When we did it was written all over his face that he knew something was very wrong. Attempts by everyone to put up a good front were useless. Cody knew Grammy was not well. All the way home his demeanor was quiet and solemn. Then as he sat in the back seat staring out the window, in what amounted to little more than a whisper he said, “I’m running out of time with Grammy.” I had to look away so he would not see the tears rolling down my cheeks.

I also recently wrote about the possibility that my sister Connie may have cancer. After eight weeks of tests, biopsies and brain surgery, we were painfully made aware that the possibility is now a reality. Doctors removed one tumor from her brain but she has at least four more lesions and a large mass on her lung. Sadly, her prognosis is grim. The doctors predict that she has less than a year to live. It has left me with a sense of urgency to make the best of my time left with her and an strong desire to develop a closer relationship with my remaining sister and my brother.

Cody has been through the loss of many loved ones throughout the years. When Cody was 10, we had to tell him his Grandma Jackson—my mother—went to heaven. She was followed by my sister, Becky, who died from bone cancer a year and half later. Not long thereafter, my father suffered a massive heart attack and died instantly. Then Cody’s great-grandfather (Grammy’s husband) passed after battling a long illness. A few years later we suffered the loss of my brother’s oldest son. His passing was especially difficult because, first and foremost, he had a heart of gold, but also because he was so young. And now, unless God performs a miracle, Connie will be my second sibling cancer will have claimed. To add to it all Cody’s Nana—Bill’s mother—who lives with us is in frail health as well.

While Cody’s resilient nature has brought him through loss of loved ones in the past, I worry how he will handle so much all at once at what is supposed to be the most joyful time of the year. While Bill and I have tried to keep our emotions in check, Cody still senses our unrest. When he realizes something isn’t right with one or both of us he becomes nervous, which leads to pacing back and forth, rounds of rapid-fire echolalia, throwing up and hitting his head with his fist. Then it all ends with a total meltdown.

With all that is happening right now the last thing I want is to see my child go through that kind of turmoil because he is internalizing our emotions along with his own. And the only way I know to avert a tragic breakdown for Cody amid such sadness is to set aside my own distress and to focus on the meaning of Christmas for our family and the traditions we keep.

To start our celebration on Christmas Eve, we make a smorgasbord of goodies for everyone to graze on throughout the day. In the evening we light lots of candles in our family room and sit in front of the fire having a cup of hot chocolate while I read from Scriptures which tell of the birth of Jesus. Cody listens with undivided attention. We all love the story and the warm feelings of love, peace and joy which fill our spirits. It is on this night when the lights that adorn our trees and the Christmas decorations throughout the house seem to be even more beautiful than on any other night of the season.

We then attend midnight mass. Pastor never fails to render a most poignant sermon which seems to reveal new and more thought-provoking aspects of the birth of Christ each year. At the end of the service everyone in the congregation is given a candle. The lights overhead are dimmed to low and the pianist plays a soft introduction to “Silent Night.” and everyone begins to sing. Interestingly, I never seem to notice anyone singing off-key. It’s just so perfectly lovely.

An usher lights a candle and the light is passed from one congregation member to the next. Finally the entire sanctuary is filled with candlelight. It is like a sweet contentment just permeates the very air we breathe and sometimes I swear I can see sparkling beams of light which radiate from the cross which hangs high above the alter, out across the parish touching and soothing each precious soul. Just thinking about it brings warmth to my heart and a smile to my face.

When we finally get home Cody is all giggles and anxious to get to bed so Christmas morning will come. Bill and I set to work on putting the presents under the tree and filling the stockings. We might enjoy a glass of wine and some time together, but before long dreamland beckons us.

When we wake the next morning I love to sit and watch the smiles on the faces of my family as they open their gifts. That’s followed by a wonderful dinner, togetherness and a sense of satisfaction that defies description.

It is my prayer that God will help me make this tradition more special than ever this year for all of us, but for Cody in particular. Sometimes it is in the face of loss that we are most able to embrace the real gifts we’ve been given.